Getty Images

Kidnapped twice, trainer Antonio Sano eyeing Kentucky Derby

Leave a comment

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. — Getting to what will be his first Kentucky Derby is on Antonio Sano’s mind almost constantly these days.

To say he took an unusual route would be an understatement.

Kidnapped on two separate occasions eight years ago in his native Venezuela – once for just a few hours, the other for 36 harrowing days, both times being freed after paying ransoms that he prefers not to disclose – the trainer and his family came to the United States to start their lives over in what they hoped to be a safer environment.

Fast forward eight years, and the 54-year-old Sano has a horse named Gunnevera, the favorite for Saturday’s Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park and one that seems to already be among the top contenders for the Kentucky Derby.

“I had a little problem,” Sano said. “Now I have a big opportunity.”

A “little problem.” That’s what he calls being held twice against his will, inevitably wondering if he would ever see his family again. Now he’s a few weeks away from stepping onto the grounds of Churchill Downs for the first time, assuming Gunnevera – a winner in four of his last six starts, with three of those victories coming in graded stakes races – gets out of this weekend with no problems.

Long before Gunnevera ever saw the track, Sano knew there was something special.

“I bought the horse in September 2015,” Sano said. “I worked the horse three or four times and I said, `This is my horse.’ He’s good.”

Gunnevera already has enough points to assure himself of a spot in the 20-horse Kentucky Derby field. Still, Sano hopes he’s done enough to set Gunnevera up for a win in the Florida Derby – the race that Nyquist used to prep for his win at Churchill Downs a year ago.

“It’s very important, this moment,” Sano said.

These are very troubled times for Venezuela, and that isn’t new.

The U.S. Department of State has long warned Americans from going to Venezuela, saying “violent crime – including murder, armed robbery, kidnapping, and carjacking – is endemic throughout the country.” Just this week, Venezuela’s Supreme Court ruled it can take over the powers of congress in a move that some said was a step toward installing a dictatorship in the South American nation.

Despite it all, Sano is proud of where he’s from – and what he’s come from.

“Venezuela is my history. America is my now,” Sano said. “At this moment, I’m working for my kids. My kids are what it’s all about for me. I’m working for their better.”

It’s no coincidence that Gunnevera’s ownership group includes two Venezuelans. Sano, of course, is Venezuelan. So it only makes sense that the jockey be Venezuelan as well – and that jockey is Javier Castellano, the winner of the last four Eclipse Awards as the top rider in the game.

Castellano called Sano to ask for the job. It doesn’t always work that way at Derby time.

“Maybe it’s meant to be,” said Castellano, who has ridden in 10 Kentucky Derbys. “Who knows?”

Sano doesn’t speak often about what he went through, and when he does he keeps certain details private. He said he’s still very leery of his family’s safety, and takes extra measures to help ensure their security in the U.S.

But Castellano knows the tale well, and raves about the person Sano is.

“It’s amazing,” Castellano said. “One thing you have to realize is to appreciate life. You help that kind of guy. He’s always helpful, very humble guy, always appreciates the opportunities people give to him. Hey, he’s lucky to be here. So you just enjoy the ride.”

American filly Lady Aurelia wins again at Royal Ascot

Leave a comment

ASCOT, England — American filly Lady Aurelia won at Royal Ascot for the second straight year, cruising to a three-length victory in the King’s Stand Stakes under replacement jockey John Velazquez on Tuesday.

“She’s a once-in-a-lifetime horse,” said trainer Wesley A. Ward after Lady Aurelia backed up her win in the Queen Mary Stakes in 2016.

Frankie Dettori was scheduled to ride Lady Aurelia, but pulled out of the entire meeting early Tuesday after failing to recover from an arm injury sustained when he was thrown off a horse in a parade ring last week.

Velazquez was drafted in and settled the U.S. horse into a good early position. Lady Aurelia took the lead with two furlongs to run and pulled away, winning the five-furlong race in 57.45 seconds, just short of a course record.

“This is wonderful for American racing,” said Ward, who has eight career winners at Ascot since 2009. Six of those wins have been by juveniles.

Ward has 10 entries at the prestigious meeting staged just outside London, as part of the largest contingent of U.S. runners – 14 – to compete at Royal Ascot.

Following the arrival of Queen Elizabeth II at the course ahead of the start of the meeting, racing was preceded by a minute’s silence in honor of the victims of attacks in Britain in recent weeks.

Royal Ascot to make to make U.S. Television debut

Getty Images
Leave a comment

STAMFORD, Conn. – NBCSN presents daily live coverage of the Royal Meeting in Ascot, Berkshire, England – one of the most prestigious horse racing meets in the world – beginning Tuesday, June 20, at 8:30 a.m. ET. NBCSN’s live coverage of the full five-day Royal meeting, Tuesday through Saturday, June 24, will air daily from 8:30 a.m.-1 p.m. ET — for a total of 22.5 coverage hours. This year’s coverage marks the U.S. television debut of the event.

Royal Ascot is one of the world’s most valuable horse racing events, attracting many of the world’s finest racehorses. The event features 30 races, including eight at the world championship “Group One” level. Five US‑based trainers are expected to field a total of 14 runners, headlined by Todd Pletcher, whose horses won the Kentucky Derby (Always Dreaming) and Belmont Stakes (Tapwrit) this year. Pletcher’s American Patriot runs in Tuesday’s Queen Anne Stakes.

The Royal Meeting is the center of the British social season and a pivotal week in the calendar of the Royal Family, who arrive every day by the world famous “Royal Procession” – with the first carriage carrying The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh.